So, I'm looking for this short story. I read it a couple of years ago, but I have the feeling it was written in the 80s or earlier.

It is about a business man on an alien world. He is an expert in navigating the cultural mores of other species. The alien world is inhabited by haystack-like creatures that have some sort of peculiarity in how they speak. (They can only tell the truth? But I don't think that's it?). Man's old rival shows up and tries to usurp his trade partnership. There is a discussion with the two men and the aliens, where the two men try to out bid each other using their cultural knowledge of the aliens. Second man pulls out a gun, not realising the aliens are very strict pacifists.

I feel like the aliens ate from a hole in the bottom of their bodies?

It was memorable because of the way it discussed the culture, language and moral/social differences between humans and the aliens.

I enjoyed this story so much, but I can't seem to find it.

Thank you for your time!

  • I thought we had another question on the site about it, but I'm having a hard time finding it. Jul 23, 2016 at 14:16

1 Answer 1


That's Joe Haldeman's "A !tangled web" originally published in Analog in 1981. (The exclamation mark in the title is pronounced as a alveolar click.)

The depicted culture is notable for several things:

  • A formal apology taking the form of a short narrative that begins "I die." followed by a few sentences explaining how this death results in catastrophic consequences and ending "All Die. O The embarassment" Each such apology is suppose to be new, and the narrator is better at it than his competitor. Here's a sample (as quoted on GoodReads (tag: tang-apology) because I can't find my copy right now):

    I die. O my hair falls out and my flesh rots and my bones are cracked by the hungry ta!a'an. He drops me behind him all around the forest and nothing will grow where his excrement from my marrow falls. As the years pass the forest dies from the poison of my remains. The soil washes into the sean and poisons the fish and all die. O the embarrassment.

  • A formal mode of bargaining in which each bidder makes his offer a superset of the last bid for exactly three rounds. But the process can be re-set by declining to offer a superset.

  • A division of the world into three market categories. That with no value. That with finite value. And that with infinite value. The concept of things with negative value appears as part of the plot.

I see that it was mostly recently made available in the ebook Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds

  • If “!” is meant to have its IPA value, it's an alveolar click. At least in human anatomy, a purely glottal click is not physically possible, though other types of click may be glottalised. Jul 24, 2016 at 8:08
  • 1
    Hmmm ... I'll have to take your word for it. I know nothing of IPA (aside from its meaning with respect to beer) and probably misremember something I've read. Jul 24, 2016 at 16:02
  • I have seen those apologies referenced elsewhere. Thank you for giving us the source! Apr 3 at 10:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.